Immigrant Domestic Workers

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Immigrant Domestic Workers

Domestic work entails the duties of cleaning, caring, and nurturing in a private household. Domestic work is either “paid” or “unpaid” labor, and it has historically been done by women. When done by mothers and other kin, it is considered skilled work, but when done by others it is often disregarded as unskilled labor, and therefore minimally rewarded with low wages. The labor of domestic work is not inherently racist. However, it has been a vehicle for institutional racism in both the past and the present.

Paid domestic work continues to be relegated to poor women of color and migrant women around the world, and it is usually shunned by those with other labor market options. This is because it is considered a low-status occupation with low wages and poor labor-market conditions. Because it is difficult to enforce labor standards in domestic work, the work often entails excessive job responsibilities that include cooking, cleaning, and caring for the dependents of a household. In the United States, African-American women have historically performed paid domestic service in the South—a labor-market concentration that is a legacy of slavery. In the early twentieth century, African Americans began to enter domestic service in the North, and they were joined by poor immigrant women from Ireland, Italy, Japan, and Mexico. In the early twenty-first century, migrant women of color from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines make up a disproportionate number of domestic workers in the United States.

The United States is not the only country that depends on migrant women workers to fill the need for paid domestic work in private households. With globalization, domestic workers are increasingly migrating from poorer to richer countries. Polish and Albanian women, for instance, are moving west to respond to the demand for domestic work in private households in countries from Greece to Germany. Likewise, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, and Indonesians are filling the need for domestic workers in richer countries of Asia and the Middle East, while Filipinos, Caribbeans (e.g., Dominicans in Spain and West Indians in Britain), and Latinos (e.g., Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States and Peruvians in Italy) are filling the demand for domestic workers in the rich countries of North America and western Europe.

Native citizens tend to shun domestic work because of its low pay. Migrant domestic workers uniformly earn below minimum wage—generally reaching no more than $3.00 an hour for live-in work in Los Angeles, for example (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001). Average salaries of domestic workers differ across the diaspora: Migrant domestic

workers earn, on average, $100 per month in Jordan, $500 per month in Israel, $1,200 per month in Italy, and $750 per month in Taiwan. In the United States they can earn up to $2,000 per month for full-time live-in employment, though they are also known to earn much less—sometimes not reaching $1,000 per month for the same work. Wage differences between domestic workers in a single country reflect the absence of a labor standard in domestic work and the dependence of domestic workers on the consciousness of employers. However, there are some good employers and bad employers. Good employers ensure domestic workers receive a day off regularly, a daily rest period, and their own private space in the household. In contrast, bad employers have been known to force domestic workers to sleep in the kitchen (Anderson 2000).

Across the globe, from Israel to Greece to Canada, ethnic and racial differences between domestic workers and their employers are not diffused by the intimacy of their interactions in the private space of a home. Instead, these differences tend to be magnified by the unequal relationship imposed by employers. The imposition of racial difference first takes place in hiring. Racist stereotypes shape the hiring practices of employers, a practice that aggravates the subordinated status of domestic workers while highlighting the racial difference between domestics and employers. In stereotyping an ethnic and racial group, certain characteristics are generalized and conflated, thereby ridding members of the group of their individuality. For example, in Canada, the two largest group of domestic workers—Caribbean and Filipinos— are racialized differently. Filipinos are often enforced with positive stereotypes. Many consider them to be excellent housekeepers who are docile and willing to tolerate the poorest of working conditions without any complaints. In contrast, Jamaicans are imbued with negative stereotypes. They are considered aggressive and less likely to be willing to do the extra work requested by employers. However, both positive and negative stereotypes enforce the marginal status of a group and their distinction as an “Other.”

Xenophobia also mars the integration of foreign domestic workers in the host society (Parreñas 2001). Restrictive immigration laws impose partial citizenship on foreign domestic workers, so that they are not granted the rights of full membership in the society that depends on their labor. Domestic workers are usually relegated to a temporary visa, which is the case in Asian and European countries. Their legal status is usually conditional to their employment by one particular employer, and they often do not have the right to choose their employer regardless of their treatment—whether good or bad—by employers. This places domestic workers in a position of bonded servitude. This is the case in Hong Kong, but also in Canada and the United States. Under Canada’s Live-In Caregiver’s Programme, for example, domestic workers must reside for two years with their sponsoring employer to qualify for landed status. In the United States, under foreign labor certification programs, domestic workers must remain employed with their sponsoring employer regardless of work conditions until they receive their green card, a process that has been known to take ten years. In some countries, the exclusion of domestic workers extends to marriage and pregnancy. For instance, foreign domestic workers cannot marry Singaporean nationals, and they face immediate deportation from Singapore and Malaysia if they test positive for pregnancy.

In the workplace, racial inequalities also adversely shape employer-employee relations. Social divisions are manifested spatially and physically. For instance, some employers insist that domestic workers must wear uniforms and wash their clothes separately. Employers also impose “spatial deference” on their domestic workers, meaning the “unequal rights of the domestic and the employer to the space around the other’s body and the controlling of the domestic’s use of house space” (Rollins 1985, p. 171). Employers also control the spatial movements of domestic workers by deciding on the domestic’s integration or segregation from the family. More often than not, they prefer segregation, as they tend to hire those who will demand very little resources in terms of time, money, space, or interaction. Thus, the access of domestic workers to household space is usually far more contained than for the rest of the family. In both Los Angeles and Rome, Filipina domestic workers have found themselves subject to food rationing, prevented from sitting on the couch, provided with a separate set of utensils, and told when to get food from the refrigerator and when to retreat to their bedrooms.

Finally, the inequality of an international and racial “division of reproductive labor” (Glenn 1992; Parreñas 2000) defines employer-employee relations, as women with greater privilege in the global economy pass down the burdens of housework to less-privileged women. Usually those with less privilege are working-class immigrant women of color. Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in the number of two-income families and women in the paid labor force in richer countries throughout the world. Yet states have not adequately responded to the different needs of these families, particularly their need for child-care assistance, but has instead continued to relegate child care as a private responsibility of the family. Likewise, men have not taken up the slack left by women’s participation in the labor force and still do less housework than women (Hochschild 1989). To be free of the burden of housework so one is able to pursue the personally fulfilling challenges of paid work, women with greater resources rely on the low-wage labor of poor immigrant women of color. This inequality suggests that domestic work is not a “bond of sisterhood,” but instead a “bond of oppression,” allowing for the mobility of one group of women at the cost of the immobility of another (Romero 1992).

SEE ALSO Caribbean Immigration; Immigration, Race, and Women; Immigration to the United States; Undocumented Workers.


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Bakan, Abigail, and Daiva Stasiulis. 1995. “Making the Match: Domestic Placement Agencies and the Racialization of Women’s Household Work.” Signs 20 (2): 303–335.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 1992. “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor.” Signs 18 (1): 1–43.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Avon.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 2001. Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parreñas, Rhacel. 2001. “Transgressing the Nation-State: The Partial Citizenship and ‘Imagined (Global) Community’ of Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26 (4): 1129–1154.

_____. 2000. “Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers and the International Division of Reproductive Labor.” Gender & Society 14 (4): 560–580.

Rollins, Judith. 1985. Between Women: Domestics and their Employers. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Romero, Mary. 1992. Maid in the USA. New York: Routledge.

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas

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Immigrant Domestic Workers

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